Public health network suffers hiccups

Public health network suffers hiccups

Representatives of state, local and federal public health and IT organizations last week told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy that they aren't getting the information they need to thwart bioterrorism.

Subcommittee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, titled Public Health's Infrastructure: Every Health Department Fully Prepared; Every Community Better Protected, noted serious deficiencies in timely distribution of information. CDC estimated that 68 percent of U.S. counties have high-speed Internet access and can receive broadcast messages, although only 13 states have high-speed connections to all their counties.

The existing public health information-sharing systems are CDC's Health Alert Network, Epidemic Information Exchange (Epi-X) and National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS). When fully deployed, the Health Alert Network will link local, state and federal agencies to public and private health care providers. It will also function as the platform for Epi-X, NEDSS and other applications. About 700 health officials participate in Epi-X. NEDSS will make possible electronic instead of paper reports.

But Rock Regan, CIO of Connecticut and president of the National Association of State CIOs, expressed reservations about HAN's setup, saying it is 'used to broadcast information from the CDC out to the states and localities' but is not interactive and lacks robustness. One state's HAN connection had to shut down in the midst of a biohazard emergency, he said, because the air conditioning for the servers failed.

Regan proposed using the Justice Department's Integrated Justice Information System as a blueprint for disseminating public health information. In each state, police agencies, corrections departments and the judicial system are linked through integration points to the FBI, federal corrections and national judicial systems.

The public health infrastructure relies too much on paper reporting and phone calls, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Shays said he witnessed the aftermath of a chemical leak on an Amtrak train. 'What struck me was that the health department people and hospital workers were treated like stepchildren, even though they knew how to treat the outbreak. Communication was by one phone,' Shays said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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